Two years ago today, I stood in my dad’s classroom at UBC, my heart beating in my throat. It was his birthday, though I pretended I didn’t remember. See, my dad really disliked his birthday. I’d listened to his passionate monologues about why it was he didn’t enjoy his birthday quite a few times in my life. Overall, it made him uncomfortable – the presents, the singing, the clear intrusion of personal space. He acted as though knowing his birthday was an invasion of privacy, and would grumble every time he came to the realization someone had spilled the beans.
It wasn’t his stark distaste for his birthday that made me nervous, however. The semester was almost over and the students were asked to do presentations. I wasn’t an official student of my dad’s – I simply enjoyed his class. He spent a lot of the term going over Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, lineage and mythology, which had the entire class mesmerized, including me. When it came time for presentations, I thought I’d slink away quietly, avoiding having to speak in front of people. I’m a self-proclaimed social introvert; I enjoy socializing but have never been one for bravado. But this was a special day and I was prepared to take centre stage, journal in hand.
Because I’d exhausted many ideas of what kind of presentation to do and came up with nothing that was short of terrifying, and because it was my dad’s birthday, I decided to pull a bit of a prank on him to lighten the mood (or my mood, rather), while at the same time hopefully making him proud.
And so began my career as a public speaker, as I read the following script from my journal in front of class that day, two years ago on his birthday:
I moved into a new place over the weekend and my roommate, Karen, and I stood in the living area excited that we have a fire place. As we stood there, celebrating the fact, I began to ponder the significance of fire and what it means to me. I’d like to share with you, today, some of my deep thoughts about it.
When I think of fire, two emotions come to mind. One being fury and the other passion. Most definitely these are fiery emotions. When you are angry, do you not get warm and red? And when you feel passionately, does fire not burn steadily in your heart?
Or, perhaps, some of us are made of fire, unafraid to get burned – A phoenix risen from the ashes. I believe that we, as humans, are always being reborn. And when it comes to life, surely, fire must be a symbol of that. Is it not alive itself? I do believe it is. It is also pertinent to our survival, especially in our earliest days with nothing else to keep us warm or to cook our food upon. But if fire is life, it must also be death. We’ve seen its devestations on our forests during a wildfire or what can happen if a building should catch ablaze. Some people have what might be considered an ‘irrational’ fear of fire, but I don’t believe it is. Like all four elements, fire is powerful and we must respect the abundance it provides.
In the Kwakwaka’wakw culture, the fire’s significance connects the underworld and the heavens to us. It is the gateway to the supernatural world, the place where our ancestors reside. As mentioned in class, we burn our Atlakim masks once they’ve been used four times, to be sent back to our ancestors. In ceremony, we sometimes burn hemlock bows to rid us of bad energies. During a potlatch, fire gives us a sense of community as we all come around it, feeling its warmth as we watch our dancers move beautifully around it. In the preparation of fish, you might say, it too brings us together, though cooking the salmon is one of the final steps of preparation.
Our fire is a teacher, full of lessons. In the legend of Raven and how he lost his voice, it was a coal hot off the fire that taught him his mischief is not appreciated. There is another legend where Raven used to once have beautiful white feathers until his mischief caused him to be trapped above a fire, the smoke turning him black.
Many times in my life I have thought my dad as the Raven, always having a lesson to teach. But he is also fire, his soft light gently guiding me. There were times in my life where I was angry with my father – there goes that fire again – for not having enough time to spend with me. It took me a long time and having my own child to realize his love is fire, not extending just to his friends and family, but to everyone. And that fire brings people together. The evidence is here, as I stand before all of you.
At this point I said, “And as a modern example of how fire brings us together…” and pulled out a birthday cake (his favourite; tiramisu), lit the candles and sang “Happy birthday” as the rest of the class joined in in unison.
When the assault on my dad was over he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and a genuine smile and said, “I should’ve known you’d pull something like this.” It was the first time I ever remember seeing him enjoy being sung to on his birthday.
It was then I realized that he was right: You should share your gifts because you never know who’s life it might touch.
We were both delightfully surprised that day.